Tuesday, August 9, 2011

New Roots in NYC

The Uri L'Tzedek Summer Fellowship Program Participants with Author Karyn Moskowitz in NYC

The following article is reprinted from Uri L'Tzedek's August Newsletter. I met one of the founders, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, at Hazon's Jewish Food Conference in December in Sonoma County, California. When I knew I was going to be near NYC after dropping my daughter Cicada off at Eden Village Camp in late June, I contacted them to see if the interns would be interested in hearing about our food justice work here in Kentucky. I am so glad I went. It is inspiring to me to see young people make the choice to spend part of their summer organizing for social justice in NYC, to make a change in our food system. We wish them well as they go back to school!

You can find out more about Uri L'Tzedek's work at: http://www.utzedek.org/

My name is Tamar Schneck and I am currently participating in the Uri L'Tzedek Summer Fellowship Program. I have spent the past five weeks with eight peers working, learning, and growing. Throughout the fellowship, we have heard presentations on social justice and the nonprofit world, strategized for the Tav HaYosher program, and worked on our group projects, but most importantly we have developed friendships, processed, reflected and learned from various experiences together.

One of the experiences that truly influenced me was a presentation by guest speaker Karyn Moskowitz, who spent her life travelling and living in various cities throughout the United States, until finally settling down in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville, according to Karyn, is split roughly into two sections: one wealthy and one poor. The impoverished area has some of the highest obesity rates in America and is a food desert, an area in which fresh and/or healthy food is difficult to obtain. Karyn noticed the disparity in food resources and the unhealthy lifestyle and was determined to change it. She began a non-profit organization called New Roots, which is dedicated to teaching healthy eating and cooking and providing fresh food to these neighborhoods, in conjunction with local churches, through the Fresh Stop Project. Karyn identified a problem and spent her resources, energy and time devoted to resolving it. She is an inspiration to me and my fellow peers in the program. She spoke to us about how, in the beginning, she was rejected from grants, and thus went on welfare to support and establish New Roots. In the beginning, churches were uninterested in cooperating and the community was suspicious of her. Despite these initial hurdles New Roots has grown tremendously.

Karyn's dedication, hope and persistence are characteristics that I have learned are vital to anyone who wants to create change in the world. Speakers like her have helped me internalize, understand and power through the experiences that we've had as part of the fellowship. It has also helped me appreciate the positive reactions I hear from others and accomplishments that we have achieved.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Fresh Stop Video by Juliana Stricklen

New Root’s Fresh Stop Project

What does it take to rebuild a just and thriving local food system in Kentucky, one that helps ensure that everyone, regardless of race, income, or neighborhood of residence has access to good, clean, fair, affordable food? This question has been the passion of New Roots since its formation in 2009, and has led to our mission to create a just and thriving food system in the Louisville metro area.

New Roots is a small, grassroots 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization. I founded it with the help of my young daughter Cicada Hoyt, and much love and support from other community members. Today, this small nonprofit is catching the attention of people all over the world for its “can-do” attitude and effective work in connecting low-income residents of Louisville’s “food deserts” (West Louisville, Newburg, and Old Louisville, for now) with affordable fresh food from local and regional farmers on a shoestring budget. New Roots accomplishes this through its innovative Fresh Stop Projects, food justice leadership development classes, and healthy eating “boot camps.”

The formation of New Roots grew out of a frustration with the lack of farmers’ markets in Louisville’s food deserts. Louisville presently has 27 farmers’ markets, yet very few exist in the neighborhoods that need them most. Farmers Markets in the food deserts have been impossible to sustain. Farmers have the perception that they will make more money in high-income neighborhood farmers’ markets, and often fear for their safety in “high crime areas.” In addition, farmers’ markets pricing, even if Food Stamps/EBT are accepted, is often too high for low-income families. Grocery store chains share these perceptions. This phenomenon has led to a disparity in health. Residents of these neighborhoods experience higher rates of diet-related illnesses than people who live outside of them.

About seven years ago, an alternative vision for food justice—The Fresh Stop Project— was brewing in Cleveland, Ohio with City Fresh. Fresh Stops are similar to CSAs, Community-Supported Agriculture projects. A typical farmer-run CSA works by asking members to pay a large fee up front, before the Kentucky growing season (average of about $600 in our region). In turn, the members receive weekly baskets full of fresh, seasonal produce from the farm. However, low-income families cannot usually afford a large up front fee.

Fresh Stops run either every week or every week, and payment is given only one week ahead of time, so the upfront commitment is doable. Some Fresh Stops run on a sliding scale—with low income food stamp users paying $12 per share and higher income paying $25—so that neighbors are subsidizing good food for their neighbors, and in turn the collective buying power allows the group to purchase much more than they could have otherwise.

Fresh Stops are run and operated by community and church leaders and are 100% volunteer-powered and not-for-profit. This past May, interested neighborhood leaders were recruited and invited to spend seven weeks (one hour class per week) participating in New Root’s food justice leadership development class to explore a Shawnee Neighborhood Fresh Stop. We engaged in often difficult conversations about food justice, including the role race plays in why low-income residents of color have limited options for fresh food access, yet are inundated with fast food, and what we call, “The Color of the Local Food System,” i.e., the fact that our nation’s food system is controlled by mostly wealthy Caucasians. Twenty-five leaders visited Courtney farms, and listened to owner Mary Courtney talk about what it takes for a small family farmer to survive in this economy, allowing a deep connection to emerge between growers and eaters. We talked about the effects of agricultural chemicals on our health and the health of workers, and the role of federal policy in the rise of high-fructose corn syrup flavored processed foods, and corn in the diets of factory-farmed animals. At the end of the seven weeks, the leaders organized themselves into teams to plan the new Fresh Stop.

The Fresh Stop uses a cooperative buying model to buy fresh local food at wholesale prices from a variety of farmers who understand our mission and are happy to participate, sometimes donating extras. During the winter, neighborhood leaders meet with farmers to ask them to grow specific produce that meets the needs of the community and negotiating wholesale prices. This same Farmer Liaison Team continues to work with the farmers throughout the season, checking on what is in season and current pricing, and placing orders. A week before the Fresh Stop, Fresh Stop Coordinators and the Outreach Team remind families to pay for their shares. All money is collected, orders are tallied, farmers are called, and orders are placed. One Fresh Stop can have four farmers participating in one event.

New Roots has to date chosen to partner with churches and community centers for Fresh Stop locations. We have been very lucky to partner with Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church in Old Louisville (now in its fourth season and operating independently with some shared produce buying), the Wesley House in Newburg, and the Redeemer Lutheran Church and the Shawnee Arts and Cultural Center in West Louisville.

On the day of the Fresh Stop, farmers drop off their produce at the site. Volunteers immediately get to the task of counting to figure out how many of each item a family can receive. Tables are set up and items are displayed. Volunteers are stationed behind the produce tables to answer questions on preparation and storage of produce and to offer other tips.

When you show up at a Fresh Stop, members of your community greet you. Our Fresh Stop Coordinators Team checks off your name to verify that you have paid ahead of time or have your EBT/Food Stamp card swiped, and then you are given a reusable bag to go down a line of tables full of beautiful local produce. Signs on the table tell members how many of each item they can choose, giving the Fresh Stop the feel of a farmers’ market. In Shawnee we are lucky to have Chef Derrick Jackson there every week demonstrating how to prepare the items in the week’s share. A newsletter is available with recipes and stories on people’s relationship to food. Then, members are asked if they would like to share in the next Fresh Stop’s bounty and money is collected. Any extras are sold on a separate table and money is rolled back into the Fresh Stop. Volunteers clean up and the site rests, until the next Fresh Stop. The Shawnee Fresh Stop leadership team meets biweekly to share best practices with each other and continually improve the process, do neighborhood canvassing, and introduce new food justice concepts to the group.

A Fresh Stop has a lot of “moving parts.” To see it in action, it looks like everything happens as if by magic, but actually, it has taken a group of dedicated volunteer leaders organized into teams to make it work. To date, over 300 families have participated in the Shawnee Fresh Stop, an average of 50 per week in Old Louisville, and 25 families at the Wesley House.

New Roots is presently looking for new board members to help us meet this great need in the community, with terms to begin in mid-September. We also need your donation to create a network of Fresh Stops all over the City. Please call 502-509- 6770 or email info@newrootsproduce.org. Visit our Facebook site at www.facebook.com/newroots and our website at www.newrootsproduce.org.

The author shows her appreciation of Kentucky-grown Romaine Lettuce

Friday, June 3, 2011

Food Apartheid

In 2007, I left southern Indiana to take a job with Community Farm Alliance (CFA) in Louisville, Kentucky. At that time, CFA had an office in the Portland Neighborhood of West Louisville, which had opened in 2003. My job description was “business development organizer.” My responsibilities included incubating two different local food distribution businesses to “rebuild the local food system."

Rebuilding a food system? But didn’t we already have a food system? After all, how could we live without a food system when food is the most important item we purchase, necessary for life, the fuel for everything we do?

Turns out we do have a food system, but that it is severely broken. And it seems to be broken on both ends. That is, on the supply side, conventional agriculture has led to the creation of food that tastes like Styrofoam and sometimes has the equivalent nutrition of that substance. On the demand side, people in the know, with money and access, are clamoring for local food, with small family farmers scrambling to find market channels and meet the need. However, not everyone has equal access to this new clean, fair, local food. This Jewish mama, who lives for the knowledge that everyone I know and love is eating well, was shocked to find out that my job description included attempting to rebuild a food system in a city that had created a “food desert,” where a large percentage of its residents had limited access to fresh, affordable food. The majority of the residents who live in these neighborhoods of Louisville are African-American and low-income families.

Low-income people of color in our American cities are being denied access to fresh food for very complex reasons that will surface over the next few blogs. As a result, they suffer disproportionately. Their neighborhoods have limited options for purchasing fresh, healthy food, and as a result, the residents, especially the children, are getting serious diet-related illnesses due to limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Back in 2007, I had never heard of the term “food desert.” I had certainly experienced a rural food desert first hand. But I have lived in many US and foreign cities, including Queens, New York, Paris, France, San Francisco, California, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington where farmer’s markets and small produce stores seemed to be everywhere. How could this wealthy American city—home to the Kentucky Derby, Bourbon and Southern Belles—have allowed a food desert to happen?

I decided that the best way for me and my daughter to understand this “food apartheid” was to move into the neighborhood ourselves, which we did in April of 2007. This turned out to be an important move on our part, as we got to live the problem others often just talk about. What I lived with and saw in West Louisville that year, and the three years since I left the neighborhood to move to another one that is more food blessed, has turned my life upside down. Since that April day, I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t spent a portion of it trying to work with residents, farmers, and organizers to figure out solutions to this problem.

Our house in West Louisville that first year became the neighborhood hub, as the local children soon found out we were a house full of fresh cooked food, lively conversation and a friendly dog. But finding that food to cook was another story. In the entire neighborhood of nearly 65,000 people, there were only two major grocery stores—both Kroger’s—a grocery store chain headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a Sav-A-Lot. In West Louisville there is an average of only 1 full service grocer per 25,000 residents, compared to Jefferson County wide ratio of 1 per every 12,500 residents. According to the last census, about 51,000 of West Louisville’s 64,741 inhabitants are African American, or 79%. By census tract, the average median household income is $20,900, about half of the Jefferson County-wide median of $39,457. In some parts of the neighborhood, the median household income drops below $10,000, less than one-fourth of the county median.

The Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness reports in its Preliminary Food Desert Analysis that nearly 100,000 Louisville citizens live in ‘food desert’ communities characterized by extremely low-access to fresh food.  Yet, low-income West Louisville is home to the highest density of fast food restaurants in the country.  In 2007, as a result of poor access to healthy food, only 13% of African American men, and 23% of African American women in West Louisville were consuming the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables, compared with 24% of white men, and 34% of white women in the same area. The lack of access to fresh foods, and the ease of access to foods with lesser nutritional value, has led to extreme health disparities. In 2007, an astounding 67% of African American women and 74% of African American men living in West Louisville were obese.
Children from low-income communities of color suffer disproportionately as family’s loss knowledge about produce origin, nutritious meal preparation, and budget planning for healthy diets. As a result, Kentucky has grown the third highest childhood obesity rate in the country at 37.1% of children.

More later on the road my daughter and I traveled with the neighborhoods to meet these challenges.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Does your dog eat salad?

A few weeks ago, we had some extra salad and wanted to see if our 11 year old Chocolate lab, Cocoa, would eat it. She licked the plate. We thought it was so funny that we made this video. Watch Cocoa eat a shredded beet salad with carrots, sunflower seeds, lettuce and miso/tahini lemon dressing. See, anyone can eat fresh food if it is prepared right!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

To Kvetch is Human, to Act is Divine

Southern Indiana Blueberries.....coming to our bellies sometime in June!

My assumption in moving to Orange County, Indiana, a farming community, was that the surrounding farms would, well, have food that I could buy. Boy was I wrong. At that point in time, the only easily accessible tomato anyone could get was to be found in Wal-Mart, which had moved into this small county of 20,000 people sometime around 1996, and had slowly but surely eliminated all other competition. So, besides the few Amish families in the county that would set up small retail stands on their farms, the only bet in town for purchasing a tomato, even in the middle of a southern Indiana summer, was a Mexican tomato from, yes, you got it, Wal-Mart. OK if you don't mind eating Styrofoam.  Everyone was growing corn, soybeans and hay, due to financial incentives from the government. So, we were surrounded by farmland, which had the potential to make our community somewhat self-sufficient, but it was being used to grow a commodity crop and we were forced to rely on a multinational corporation in order to eat. Crazy but true, and true for many, many rural communities in the United States.

I have to say that this wake up call was for me somewhat self serving at first. I really wanted that good food for my family and me, and was not happy to have to drive 50 miles each way to buy it. I would often sit in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart crying over the poor quality of the produce and lack of any real organic food, and being forced to shop at a store I didn’t want to support. I would watch as young moms filled baby bottles up with cola drinks outside in the parking lot. I felt unhealthy, not myself. Luckily Linda Lee from the Lazy Black Bear farm, my neighbor, had started a garden and would often let me forage. I started a small garden myself. That summer was a horrible drought, and I was lugging pails of pond water up to our garden, in my third trimester of pregnancy. The local animals would often try my produce out for themselves the very same morning I was fixing to pick it. They have perfect timing! My dog even joined in the revelry, helping herself to the one watermelon I was able to grow in that dryness.

This was for me, the beginning of a lifetime of living according to, "To kvetch is human, to act is divine." After a summer of kvetching, in 2000, I found a group of like-minded neighbors and friends who wanted to work together to honor what was good about the community, and work together to create the opportunities. We all met up at a series of gatherings hosted by Orange County Economic Development. They had gotten a grant to do a feasibility study on what would make Orange County a better place to live, with help from Ball State University. Our small group wanted to keep going, so from that, we formed a small nonprofit called Orange County HomeGrown. The original group included Andy Mahler, Melinda Sketo, Helen Vasquez, Jim Wootten, and others I am now forgetting. We organized in the Amish and English farming communities and found many farmers or wanna be farmers who felt as we did, and wanted to grow food if there was a market.

Cicada Ruth Hoyt at 8 years old, showing off our local kale and garlic. She learned to love kale while foraging for it as a baby, in Auntie Linda Lee's garden.

Many, including members of the town council of Paoli, the county seat, were hesitant to support us, and denied us the use of the courthouse lawn. They were the same group who gave the Wal-Mart the permits to locate in a flood zone, and promised that the increase in traffic into town would increase business to the Square….but you know the end of that story. They said they were afraid of the increase in traffic a farmers’ market would bring. But the nearby town of Orleans had a forward-thinking leader who supported us setting up on the Orleans Square. Fast forward to 2011. The Orange County Farmers' Market has nearly 90 vendors, operates on Saturday mornings from May until October, and was voted one of the top ten farmers' markets in the country in 2010. Amish farmers, small organic farmers, crafts, etc fill up almost two sides of the Square. Locals bring out their instruments and play every market, and anyone is invited to join in. Orange County HomeGrown now have two staff people, a market manager and an events coordinator, and some of the original board is still involved. There is a book exchange mobile, youth activities, cooking demos, yoga, zucchini boat racing, and the list goes on. This group later birthed another group that started a natural foods coop, the Lost River Coop, in downtown Paoli. When I go in there I sometimes think it may be a mirage, as it doesn’t seem real that a small seed of desire could grow into such abundance.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Journey to food justice

My daughter, Cicada Ruth Hoyt, at age 7, filling up her cup with water from our spring on Meshuganah Ranch
Welcome to my new blog. I have been working on food justice-related issues since I landed in the Ohio River Valley region in November of 1998, from the foodie capital of the Pacific Northwest: Portland, Oregon. Where I landed was in the small rural town of Paoli, Indiana, about 50 miles northwest of Louisville, Kentucky, in Orange County. Orange County is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It is home to the Hoosier National Forest, and its topography of gently rolling hills covered with farms and forests is sitting on top of one of the most extensive karst cave system in the United States. It is also considered one of the poorest communities (to government statisticians, that is) in the State of Indiana. But Orange County is rich in community spirit, and infused me with some of that good ole Hoosier spirit that sticks to me to this day.

When I arrived, the Jewish population swelled by 100%: from one family to two families, in a community of 20,000. There was one grocery store, a super Wal-Mart, which opened in 1996 and proceeded to slowly but surely eliminate all other grocery stores in town. The nearest natural food store was 50 miles away....and, as in many other rural communities in the region, your choice of restaurants included a few fast food and a few local places, including Bob's Superburger, famous for using local beef in their burgers, before eating local became the domain of the high-income hoidy toidy crowd. Potlucks are popular, but difficult for me, as the tradition in Kentuckiana is to flavor your vegetables in pork grease, taboo to a kashrut-keeping Jew.

Being a Jewish woman from New York in a town with a limited Jewish life was often a challenge for me. At various times I felt embraced by my friends there, and at other times, I felt as if I was living in my own little world that few others around me understood. Over time, I made close friends, and the locals got used to celebrating the Jewish holidays with us. Some even became my Hebrew students (referring to me by the name of Rabbi Moskowitz). People would often confuse me with the one other Jewish woman in town, even though we looked nothing alike.

But the biggest and most intriguing challenge I faced in that small rural enclave was lack of access to good, local food. That one small but very significant fact would play a huge role in flipping my world upside down, and set me on a path of becoming a food justice organizer. But that story I will save till my next entry. Stay tuned for the story of Orange County HomeGrown, or, how I learned to stop kvetching and start acting.